There must have been rules known to golfers dating back to the origins of the game. Otherwise, how could players have squared off in competition? What those rules were, nobody knows.
At least not until the mid-18th Century, when the first known written rules of golf were put into writing by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, now the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers based at Muirfield. The rules were written for the Annual Challenge for the Edinburgh Silver Club in 1744.
There were 13 of them, and here they are (with a few explanatory comments in parentheses). Note how many of these rules survive today:
1. “You must tee your ball within a club’s length of the hole.” (A diameter of two club lengths. Teeing grounds are now defined as two club lengths in depth.)
2. “Your tee must be on the ground.” (Tees, back in these days, consisted of little pyramids of sand.)
3. “You are not to change the ball which you strike off the tee.” (Look at that – the “one ball condition way back then! Actually, holing out with the same ball with which you teed off – with a few exceptions – is in Rule 15-1)
4. “You are not to remove stones, bones or any break club for the sake of playing your ball, except upon the fair green, and that only within a club’s length of the ball.” (Hmmm, bones? Loose impediments, Rule 23)
5. “If your ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your ball and bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it, you may play it with any club and allow your adversary a stroke for so getting out your ball.” (Origin of the 1-stroke penalty for a ball in a water hazard. Rule 26)
6. “If your balls be found anywhere touching one another you are to lift the first ball till you play the last.” (Rule 22-2)
7. “At holling you are to play your ball honestly at the hole, and not to play upon your adversary’s ball, not lying in your way to the hole.” (Don’t do something petty such as trying to hit your opponent’s ball with your own. It’s OK in croquet, not in golf.)
8. “If you should lose your ball, by its being taken up, or any other way, you are to go back to the spot where you struck last and drop another ball and allow your adversary a stroke for the misfortune.” (Stroke plus distance, Rule 27-1.)
9. “No man at holling his ball is to be allowed to mark his way to the hole with his club or anything else.” (Now incorporated in Rule 8-2.)
10. “If a ball be stopp’d by any person, horse, dog, or any thing else, the ball so stopp’d must be played where it lyes.” (Deflection by an outside agency. Play it as it lies. Rule 19-1)
11. “If you draw your club in order to strike and proceed so far in the stroke as to be bringing down your club, if then your club should break in any way, it is to be accounted a stroke.” (Definition of stroke)
12. “He whose ball lyes farthest from the hole is obliged to play first.” (Virtually unchanged after all this time. Rule 10)
13. “Neither trench, ditch, or dyke made for the preservation of the links, nor the Scholars’ Holes or the soldiers’ lines shall be accounted a hazard but the ball is to be taken out, teed and play’d with any iron club.” (The first written rules also include the first local rule, for what we would now describe as ground under repair.)
The Rules of Golf continued to be developed over time, taking a huge step forward in 1897 when the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews formed a Rules Committee.
Since 1952, the R&A and the United States Golf Association have met every two years to set down a uniform code of rules.
Sources: British Golf Museum, Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Historical Rules of Golf